For many families, Christmas brings special traditions and special recipes. Whether it is pannetone, fruitcake, plum pudding, or tourtières, what makes these limited edition foods extra meaningful is that they are often only made during the holidays; a time of gatherings, joy and celebration. In our family, the traditional Christmas Eve treat is lalagia; savory, oval shaped rings of fried dough. I know, I know….we had you at fried dough. For our parents, making lalagia brings them back to their own childhoods. On the day before Christmas, the women in the villages where they grew up would gather to prepare this special, highly anticipated treat.
We realize that many of you (even Greeks) will have never heard of lalagia. Or maybe you have had something similar, which goes by a different name. Our parents are both from the Messinia region of the Peloponnese where lalagia are extremely popular and considered a local specialty. Yet, even within this region of Greece, they are not found everywhere. Traditions, customs, and of course recipes, vary from village to village and from family to family.
Although especially common during Christmas, when folklore claims that they ward off evil elves and evil spirits, across Messinia lalagia are available in bakeries year-round. In fact, during the summer in Kalamata there are vendors who sell their freshly made lalagia right on the beach. Sigh. So, if you are unfamiliar with lalagia, this is the year to make their acquaintance. Trust us. You’ll be happy you did.
Although lalagia keep fresh for several days in a sealed container at room temperature, (or even longer in the refrigerator), they really are best when they are eaten the day they are cooked. Because they are quickly fried, you end up with a crispy exterior and a soft, pillowy, interior. There are no words to accurately describe how perfect they are, except, perfect.
The oil you use to fry the lalagia should be hot enough that the lalagia dough puffs up almost immediately when slipped into the pan. If it is not hot enough, you will end up with something unnecessarily greasy.
There are several ingredients in this recipe, and many steps. Don’t let this turn you off of trying them though. Simply read through the ingredient list and directions completely before starting, which is actually good practice for any recipe.
You can eat lalagia all on their own, dipped into your coffee, or standing in front of the refrigerator wondering what you will make for supper. But, when you pair lalagia with a good hunk of Greek feta cheese, you may actually hear angels sing. This pairing is a bit of a performance art. Carefully tear off a bite-sized piece of the lalagia, and use it to press into your feta. The feta will crumble and stick to the cut end of your lalagia. Pop into your mouth and wonder where this recipe has been your whole life.
Mia Kouppa: Lalagia
- 2 1/2 cups water
- Peel of two oranges
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 3 cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1 tablespoon active dried yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 6 1/4 cups sifted, all purpose flour
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Vegetable oil for frying
- In a saucepan add 2 1/2 cups of water, the orange peel, cinnamon sticks, cloves, dried thyme and salt. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool so that the liquid is warm, but not hot. Strain the liquid and reserve it.
- Once this aromatic water is warm and no longer hot, add it to a medium sized bowl. To this bowl also add an additional 1/2 cup warm water, the dry yeast and sugar. Mix well to dissolve the yeast and allow to sit for about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the sifted flour, stir and let sit for an additional 5 minutes. The contents of this bowl should at least double in size and “fluff up” through the activity of the yeast (make sure your bowl is large enough to accommodate this).
- Meanwhile, put 5 cups of your sifted all purpose flour into a very large bowl. Add 1/3 cup olive oil. Mix well using your hands. Add the yeast mixture and continue to mix well with your hands. Add the orange and lemon juice and mix well. Begin to add more sifted flour (if required) 1/4 cup at a time, mixing well / kneading after each addition. You might have to add a total of between 1/2 to 1 cup more of sifted flour. The dough you end up with will be sticky and slightly wet. See video here. If you find your dough too dry, add some warm water. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to this dough and gently rub it over the surface of the dough.
- Cover your dough with a clean kitchen towel and let rise for at least 2 – 3 hours in a warm, draft-free place. Your dough is ready when it has almost tripled in size.
- When your dough is ready, you can start shaping your lalagia. See video here, of dough consistency after rising. Take a small amount of dough (about a tablespoons worth) and roll it into a long, thin log about 6 inches long, and 1 centimeter in diameter (they are thin). Rubbing a small amount of olive oil on your hands, can help with the rolling. Pinch the ends together tightly to make a tear-drop shape. Set onto parchment paper. The parchment paper is important as the lalagia may stick on other surfaces.
- Let the shaped lalagia rise again for another 30 minutes, before frying.
- After 30 minutes, heat the vegetable oil, about 1 1/2 inches deep, in a deep frying pan. When your oil is hot, carefully add the lalagia, a few at a time, being careful not to crowd the pan. Keep in mind that although the uncooked lalagia are thin and scrawny, they will puff up in the oil, taking up more space.
- Fry on one side until golden brown. Flip over carefully and cook until the other side is golden brown as well. Total cooking time for each batch of lalagia will be about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from oil and let drain in a colander lined with paper towels. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!